01/28/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Is Democracy a Painful Sacrifice?

"Should I leave Egypt?"

It's a text message from a friend in Egypt. With the recent news of the passing of the constitution drafted primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood, she is wondering whether she should leave Egypt or stay.

A similar question came up a year ago in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, the birth home of the Arab Spring. A mother of two daughters spoke to me about her uncertainty and a constant internal debate with herself about whether they would stay or leave if things got really bad. At first she was determined. "I will not leave. I will stay in Sidi Bouzid and defend it from extremism." She spoke to me in a sleeveless shirt and shorts. Her daughters too were in shorts and t-shirts. It's bizarre to me how much attention I pay to clothes and dress now. Her outfit screamed for a desire for private religion.

And this was notable in Sidi Bouzid. Walking with long pants and short-sleeved shirt in the streets, I was uncomfortable. Faizeh and her daughters were squeezing the most out of the space that the previous regime's secularism allowed. And without that tight state control, it was a question for me, whether and how long society would allow her freedom to continue. At the end of our visit, I told her to be prepared to leave.

I wonder if I'm going to say the same to my Egyptian friend. She's in her thirties, building a career as a consultant with international and local companies. She wants to continue in Egypt but she doesn't know what is the smart way to go. Is everything changing? Is it irrevocable? Will she regret not starting to build a career outside so she will be secure should the laws and government restrict women's rights, international companies and clients, social freedoms, businesses and more?

I share my Egyptian's friend's dilemma with a Turkish friend. He says, "they have to stay and fight." He claims that its blood and sacrifice that brings democracy and points to the Turkish experience as an example. As a second generation Iranian, I find it hard to swallow. Staying and fighting hasn't led to much in Iran.

My Iranian friend tells me of her parent's decision to go back to Iran after the revolution, how elated they were to go back and help make change. When the revolution happened, there were over 45,000 Iranians studying in the US. Elated at the ouster of the oppressive king, leftists, nationalists, students, exiled activists, journalists, couldn't get back fast enough to build their new country. However, the new Islamic Republic quickly curtailed any creative instincts to build a new, freer country. People were jailed, executed, and otherwise silenced. Another wave of exile ensued. Many stayed with the thought that it will get better, that it was a "transition period."

Then there were the mass executions in 1988, and many left then. And then there was the crackdown after the opening provided by president Khatami. Again things opened and then shut down on the faces of eager and eternally hopeful activists. One generation replaced another in its belief. In 2009, when the presidential election results were announced too soon to be true, once again Iranians were mobilized to try again and make change. They poured into the streets in the thousands and awed the world. Once again they were killed and jailed. Another exodus. Washington replaced Tehran for the hub of Iranian activism as everyone left, fearing their lives.

This pattern of staying, fighting and then sacrificing everything to get out has been repeated almost every few years since the revolution in Iran. That's the thing, it wasn't one wave, or two waves, or three waves. It continues.

I remember my friend from graduate school who decided he was going back to Iran to run for parliament and "usher in practical change." I told my father of my friend's plans "tell him we've all tried," he said. My friend was jailed a year later during the 2009 protests. I have a picture from a local paper on my wall of his face during the trials from those days.

I turn back to Turkey. With additional research it became clear that at pivotal points in Turkish history, the leadership chose a mid-way between authoritarianism and democracy that pushed the country forward and imbued the people with democratic ideals. The conclusion? It's not just the will of the people, the leaders that take power can irrevocably change a country.

Quickly my mind goes back to the most prevalent example of this in Iran: mandated covering for women. The mandate for women to cover in Iran has arguably turned the society more perverse and more hostile towards the female body. A momentary decision from leaders has impacted the thinking and behavior of generations of men and women. A friend of mine recently took off her headscarf after 30 years. I asked her why she did it.

"I wore it for a lot of reasons, but the main one was security in public, so I would be safe from harassment. But when I went back to Iran I realized it doesn't make a difference, a young woman can be covered top to bottom and men still harass her."

This leads me back to what I will tell my friend. I think about Egypt and the leadership. What Egypt seems to have is an elite that has a political vision for the country that is not entirely or maybe even partially democratic. But there are a lot of people on watch, a lot of the population is engaged and holding the government accountable in ways that weren't even possible before 34 years ago during the revolution in Iran. And the Egyptian leadership has to prove a lot more than its religious credentials. It has to deliver in the economic realm, which was the first reason for the revolution. On the two-year anniversary of the revolution, nothing seems certain, and this has positive aspects.

So I tell her to stay. Build her life in Egypt. But also build her opportunities outside, with one foot partially out the door. The way we all have lived for years. Always ready, never certain, scared to put down roots completely.